The recent brouhaha about the Senate torture report—so brief, so predictable, and so unsatisfying—reminded me once again about the tenacity of civic myths, those symbolically potent and reassuringly simple morality tales we tell ourselves as we shape and reshape our national identity.
Most of us recognize that these tales are only casually connected to the truth. Myth-making transforms someone like Rosa Parks from flesh and blood to national symbol. She relinquishes her personal humanity and dons a hero’s mask in order to play her part in a carefully orchestrated national performance.
Myth is thus truth burnished to a brightness, durability, and perfection not found in nature. The myth becomes our representation of the past—not entirely the truth, and sometimes dangerously removed from it, but certainly not a lie.
And the most important myth of the post-9/11 era goes something like this: in moments of crisis, the United States loses its moral bearings, needlessly sacrifices liberty for security, and engages in behavior that cannot be squared with its true values. Eventually the nation regrets this course and vows to do better next time, but not before great damage is done.
I have elsewhere described this as the myth of deviation and redemption. The great danger of this myth is its stubborn attachment to the passive voice. Bad things just seem to happen. Madness simply descends upon us like darkness, unbidden and unstoppable, and the country is collectively overcome.
The myth of deviation and redemption perfectly captures the response of the Obama Administration—and most members of the national media—to the torture report. Mistakes were made, bad things happened, but that was a long time ago. We’re better now, we’ve redeemed ourselves. End of lesson.
Perhaps this myth fits other moments of American history. It does not, however, remotely describe the American embrace of state-sanctioned torture.
The Forgotten Origins of the Torture Debate
Though 9/11 was only a long decade ago, we have already begun the transformative process of erasing history. Looking back, we are encouraged to believe Americans immediately rushed to embrace torture in the terrifying aftermath of 9/11. Why? Because that sort of thing just seems to happen in moments of crisis. Except that it didn’t.
Certainly, Americans were terrified immediately after the attacks, and understandably so. Beginning the afternoon of September 11 and continuing without pause for months, virtually every organ that could claim a role in shaping American thought reported endlessly on the likelihood of another attack. Every media outlet that addressed itself to serious questions of the day joined in trying to predict when and where the next shoe would drop.
In one early account, bin Laden had reached an agreement with “organized crime figures in Chechnya” to pay $30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for twenty nuclear warheads, which he planned to convert into “suitcase nukes.” In late September, Time magazine said “the idea that weapons of mass destruction might be trained on the U.S.—not by such rogue nations as Iraq but by rogues like Osama bin Laden—suddenly seems a lot less unthinkable. Ordinary Americans are waking up in the middle of the night with nightmares about poisoned water supplies and miniature nuclear weapons set off in city streets.”
One reason for Americans’ nightmares was the sensationalistic coverage by the national press. The public was bombarded with talk of biological and chemical warfare. Nearly every news program explored the issue in great detail, always focusing on the most frightening aspects. David Ensor, a correspondent for CNN, said that agents made from anthrax “produce fever, stomach pain, then, a horrific death.”
ABC’s Good Morning America opened its coverage of biological and chemical weapons with a warning by Diane Sawyer that parents might want their children to leave the room. Then she asked, “Should you buy a gas mask?” The same day, biological terrorism was apparently NBC News’s theme for the day. Reports on Today, Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, Dateline NBC, and the MSNBC and CNBC cable networks all devoted themselves to the story. Many Americans began “to stock up on gas masks, handguns and bottled water.” The CBS program 48 Hours said gas masks were “flying off the shelves.”
Then the anthrax attacks began. Suspicion at the highest levels of government immediately, but wrongly, focused on al Qaeda or Iraq. In October, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO), emerging from a meeting with the president, was asked whether al Qaeda was behind the anthrax attacks. “I don’t think there’s a way to prove that,” he said, “but I think we all suspect that.” Vice President Cheney said the nation should act on that suspicion.
With the public overwrought, pollsters began to probe the depth of American fear. In a survey taken in October 2001, with a follow-up in March 2002, 86 percent of respondents reported they were very or somewhat concerned that the United States would suffer another attack, while 84 percent were equally concerned the attack would come from biological or chemical weapons. And more than two-thirds reported being very or somewhat concerned that they, a friend, or a relative would be “the victim of a future terrorist attack in the United States.”
It was in this desperate period—when fear was at its absolute peak and the likelihood of a catastrophic attack was believed overwhelmingly high—that the idea of torture first appeared in the national debate.
Americans Just Said No
In late October unnamed FBI agents complained to the Washington Post that four suspects held in New York had refused to talk. All the blandishments traditionally used to loosen the tongues of suspects had come to naught, and the FBI was growing frustrated. “We are known for humanitarian treatment, so basically we are stuck,” complained one agent. Another wondered aloud about employing unspecified “pressure tactics.”
Prior to this account, discussion of torture had been entirely hypothetical. But the Post story, reprinted around the country, immediately made the matter concrete and forced the country to confront one question: should the suspects be tortured?
Overwhelmingly, the answer was no. Fox News took up the question immediately after the Post article appeared. Fox anchor Jon Scott interviewed Eric Haney, a founding member of the army special operations unit, Delta Force.
Scott asked whether “maybe a little strong arm tactic might be useful to get some info we need?” “It doesn’t work,” Haney answered. “Doesn’t produce the information that you need to gain from the people and it’s always counterproductive.”
Bill O’Reilly, the influential Fox News host, also interviewed Haney. He asked what Haney would do if the four suspects were in his custody. Haney’s response was telling: some people just won’t talk. “They’re rare and they’re few,” but they exist, and no interrogation technique works on all prisoners all the time.
Rounding out the interview, O’Reilly linked torture to American exceptionalism, pointing out that “other countries use torture, and they take eyes out and they maim and they use electricity and all of that. But the United States, even in a terror war, will not do any of that?” “No, sir,” Haney answered. “We absolutely will not.”
Without question, however, the most important of the elite critiques came from the federal government. Even before the Post article appeared, Attorney General John Ashcroft was interviewed on the television news program Nightline, where Ted Koppel asked whether the FBI might subject people “to any stressful interrogation.” (This was before we knew the CIA would be given this responsibility). Ashcroft was unequivocal.
We don’t want anyone to be subjected to interrogation that would violate their rights. And I mean by that, we don’t want to extort any kind of confession. We don’t believe extorted confessions are reliable. We think that when you force someone . . . they’re likely to tell you something that’s not true. Things that aren’t true aren’t valuable to us. We don’t engage in those kinds of practices. . . . We’ll not be driven to abandon our freedoms by those who would seek to destroy them.
After the Post article, Ashcroft and the FBI immediately repudiated the unnamed agents who suggested that “pressure tactics” were under consideration. At a moment when the federal government was the most trusted voice in American society, torture was apparently not an option.
Yet some were not so sure. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter penned a column in November titled, ““Time to Think About Torture.” “In this autumn of anger,” he mused, “even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to . . . torture.” Nothing as uncivilized as “cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, but something . . . .” (The melodramatic italics and ellipsis are Alter’s.) Alter helpfully proposed “psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high decibel rap.” But he also suggested “deportation to Saudi Arabia, the land of beheadings.”
Three days after Alter’s article, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz titled “Is There a Torturous Road to Justice?” Dershowitz proposed his now famous “torture warrant” in the so-called ticking time bomb scenario. It was the first post-9/11 attempt at what many thought could not be done, and what many others believed should not be tried: to reconcile torture with American values.
Dershowitz was widely condemned for his proposal, especially from the Right. Writing in the conservative Washington Times, for instance, Jed Babbin, a former deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, said, “The war has changed so much in all of us, but it still shocks me to find myself on Alan Dershowitz’s left, on any subject.”
Likening Dershowitz to Torquemada, the infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition, Babbin expressed amazement that anyone would propose something as sadistic as needles beneath the nails, as Dershowitz had done. “Why stop there? Why not thumbscrews, the lash and the hundred other ways we can inflict pain without killing? One reason, and one reason only. We are Americans, and we will not torture people, even to save lives. This is one of the things that distinguishes us from our enemy.”
Many expressed the fear that torture is a virus, and once introduced into the body of the law it would spread and multiply. Intelligence officers would find new occasions for its use that were close enough to the ticking bomb. As the circle of what is “close enough” grew steadily larger, the practice would become regularized and the exceptional would become routine.
In that way, as conservative icon William F. Buckley put it in National Review, “torture breaks the spiritual back of the law.” Far better, therefore, to insist that it remain illegal and to trust that in genuinely extraordinary circumstances—should they ever arise—the officer who tortured would not be punished.
At the same time that the public was digesting and debating this elite discourse, pollsters began to weigh in. On October 5 and 6, 2001, Gallup, CNN, and USA Today conducted the first post-9/11 poll on torture. If the United States “thought it was necessary to combat terrorism,” would respondents be willing for the government to “torture known terrorists if [the terrorists] know details about future terrorist attacks in the U.S.?”
In a classic glass-half-full-or-half-empty moment, 45 percent of Americans supported torture under these circumstances, 53 percent opposed it, and 2 percent had no opinion. Under one view, the poll revealed an astonishing degree of support for a policy that only three weeks earlier had been unthinkable.
Yet given the unprecedented level of fear gripping American society at that moment (the polling started the day after the public announcement that a person had been poisoned by anthrax, and ended immediately after he died) perhaps the more noteworthy fact is that over half the population still opposed torture.
That fewer than half the respondents supported torture is even more significant given the way the question was worded. Social scientists have long known that polling data is extremely sensitive to variations in wording. Here the wording was critical. Respondents were asked to assume that the person to be tortured was a “known terrorist,” that he knew “details about future terrorist attacks in the U.S.,” and that the federal government had concluded his torture “was necessary.”
This phrasing all but forced people to imagine the worst-case scenario, and signaled that the most trusted voice in American society at that moment—that of the federal government—had already concluded that torture was congenial to American values. Yet support was still below 50 percent.
This more nuanced reading is supported by the results of another poll done the following month. In November, the Christian Science Monitor phrased the question somewhat differently, asking respondents whether they could “envision a scenario in the war against terrorism in which [they] would support . . . [the] torture of suspects held in the U.S. or abroad.”
While the threat environment was essentially the same, this question did not direct respondents to assume the prisoner was a known terrorist with information about future attacks whose torture had been determined necessary by the government. Support for torture dropped significantly. Only 32 percent favored it, 66 percent opposed it, and 2 percent had no opinion.
Then, in March 2002, when the sense of threat had diminished modestly, Fox News asked respondents if they could support torture “to obtain information that would protect the United States from a terrorist attack” and save “innocent lives.” Even when it was framed this way, fewer than one in four people supported torture, and nearly two-thirds opposed it.
Torture remained decidedly unpopular for the duration of Bush’s tenure. In late 2005, for instance, Americans agreed almost four to one that U.S. officials had tortured prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere, and nearly two thirds said that the use of torture against people suspected of involvement in terrorism was “unacceptable.”
There matters stood when President Obama took office. On January 22, 2009, Obama issued an executive order that ended the enhanced interrogation program and ordered CIA operatives to forgo coercive interrogations. At the time, polls showed substantial support for his move. An ABC/Washington Post poll in January 2009 showed that nearly 60 percent of Americans supported a ban on torture “no matter what the circumstances.” A Gallup/USA Today poll taken in January and February that same year found that nearly three in four respondents favored a ban on coercive interrogations.
And even when the question was deliberately framed so as to maximize support for torture—as in a January 2009 Fox News poll that asked whether, “in extreme circumstances,” the CIA should be allowed to use “enhanced interrogation techniques, or even torture, to obtain information from prisoners that might protect the United States from terrorist attacks”—more people opposed it than supported it.
Thus, contrary to the myth of deviation and redemption, bad things did not “just happen.” For more than 7 years after the attacks, including the first fraught months when the great majority of Americans believed they or their loved ones were likely to be the victims of a terrorist attack, elites and the mass public opposed torture, and support for it was consistently quite low.
Today, It’s Another Story
Yet more recently, when the risk of another attack in this country and the fear that it may befall have both become negligible, support for torture has reached record highs. A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press revealed that more than seven in ten Republicans think torture is often or sometimes justified “in order to gain important information”; only 13 percent take the position that torture is never acceptable. The numbers for self-identified conservatives are similar.
Moreover, support for torture is not confined to Republicans and conservatives. The same poll found that more than half the independents and nearly half the Democrats believe torture is often or sometimes justified, while less than a third consider it completely off limits. Compared with the results of an identical poll in 2004, support for torture has increased dramatically, and across the board.
And how that came to pass—how torture became a preferred policy option even as the ostensible justification for it steadily receded—is the subject of Part Two.